Will unmetered access come at the cost of quality?

Quality versus access. How will you decide?

At first glance, Freeserve's unmetered offering, announced on Tuesday, may seem slightly less appealing than the raft of deals unveiled last week, but according to experts, the company is counting on its customers, who are expecting a reliable and sustainable service.

In May, the company that kicked off free-ish access in the UK will offer an off-peak unmetered Internet service to BT customers for £6.99 a month. It will also offer a completely unmetered service for Energis customers willing to make at least £10 of voice calls per month.

Search giant AltaVista has said it will offer unlimited surfing in return for between £10 and £20 per year after a one-off payment of £30 to £50. Cable firm ntl went one better, promising completely free Internet access for those who sign up to its telecommunications network. Breath.net then upped the stakes yet again by offering a lifetime's free Internet access for just £50.

But as consumers plan on how to spend their saved pennies, experts are concerned that these offerings could effect quality of service.

According to Durlacher analyst Nick Gibson, "there are definitely going to be quality issues." He advises consumers to beware of deals that seem too good to be true. "These are the guys who are going to have issues, unless they've got considerable cash behind them," he said.

Gibson points to the examples set by CallNet0800 and ScreamingNet, which have seen their unmetered services beset by connection and bandwidth problems.

A representative of the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications (CUT) suspects that a more cautious approach to unmetered Internet access could pay off in the long term. CUT believes Freeserve's more restrained offer might result in a better service for the end user. He also speculates that Freeserve is looking at a sustainable service, rather than one aimed simply at gaining attention. "They've already done the capturing users thing. Now they're trying to hold on to them," said the representative.

A spokesman for the UK's original unmetered ISP, X-Stream, says that with many of these deals, "there will not be any quality. Quality is not something that you can offer at these prices."

Find out more about free Internet access in our Unmetered Access Guide.

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